Monday, December 13, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Kazakhstan Abuts Central Asia but Isn’t Part of It, Commentator Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 13 – With the demise of the USSR, observers from within and without the post-Soviet states have redrawn regional categories and hence their mental maps Nowhere has this redrawing been more common or more wrong in Central Asia where many people increasingly include Kazakhstan as part of Central Asia, according to a “Parus” commentator.
Throughout Soviet times, officials and academic specialists always spoke about “Central Asia and Kazakhstan,” a reflection in the first instance of the demographic difference between the latter and the former: Until the 1980s, Kazakhstan had an ethnic Russian plurality, the result of Moscow’s ethno-political engineering.
But now Kazakhstan has a Kazakh majority, and ever more people are inclined to count it as just another Central Asian state, but in fact, Konstantin Kasharin argues, “Central Asia is an integral, unique and self-standing region, and Kazakhstan is only its neighbor” regardless of what people in Astana or elsewhere think (
Central Asia is, Kasharin argues, “one of the unique regions of the world with an ancient history and a rich spiritual-cultural heritage.” There have been states there “since ancient times,” and it was “one of the hearths of world civilization,” with “a pleiade of scholars, artists and writers.
And despite the shocks of recent times, Central Asia has “preserved its uniqueness and its historical-cultural integrity and uniqueness in the form of its sovereign states.” And that preservation is becoming even more importance in connection with “the growth of the weight and importance of Central Asia in world politics.”
Some texts “assert that ‘Central Asia’ [Tsentralnaya Aziya] includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan,” the commentator says. Other text include these countries along with China’s Uyghur Autonomous District, and sometimes Mongolia and Afghanistan.”
Moreover, the terms, “the region of Central Asia and the Caucasus,” “the region of Central Asia and the Caspian basin” and “the region of South and Central Asia” are increasing displacing the Soviet definition of “Central Asia” [Srednaya Aziya] and thus changing how analysts, officials and diplomats conceive the countries in and near these groupings.
The history of Central Asia in recent centuries has been complicated, Kasharin points out. But neither in Russian Imperial times nor in Soviet times was Kazakhstan part of Central Asia. And an honest assessment of the situation, he continues, shows that it should continue to be considered “outside of Central Asia” rather than part of it.
Kazakhstan’s separateness, he points out, is the product of “the lack of clearly expressed geographic identity of the country, the presence of extended borders with Russia and China and also Kazakhstan’s closer economic and transportation-communication links to them rather than to the neighboring countries of Central Asia.”
Moreover, Kasharin says, “the peripheral character of the place and importance of Kazakhstan in Central Asia is also a reflection of the fact that this country de facto has avoided participating in the resolution of the knotty problems of the region,” including energy and water resources and responding to economic crises.
.Despite this longstanding tradition, the commentator continues, some in Astana have tried to present Kazakhstan not only as part of Central Asia but as the natural leader of the region, even though there is no basis for such claims. Indeed, a close examination of these statements reveals that they are rhetoric rather than reality, Kasharin insists.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has promoted various integration projects in the past, including a Eurasian Union that would be more closely integrated than the Commonwealth of Independent States, and consequently, it is perhaps no surprise that having been rebuffed in that direction, he is now looking south.
“However,” Kasharin says, “Kazakhstan as a result of a number of strategic and purely geographic characteristics never was and cannot be in its complete territorial extent part of Central Asia.” The Kazakhstan leadership may somehow have “forgotten” about this in pursuit of some geopolitical game.
But “today’s geopolitical realities are such that Kazakhstan in the person of its leaders, despite its verbal games” is pursuing a goal it cannot achieve. The enormous region which some of its leaders want to call Central Asia {Tsentralnaya Aziya] nonetheless remains Central Asia [Srednyaya Aziya] and Kazakhstan.
And as the Soviet leadership understood, that second formulation is critical because as long as Kazakhstan stands outside Central Asia, that region will not unite because Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are not going to be willing to follow the much larger Uzbekistan until and unless Kazakhstan plays a balancing role.
Consequently, Kasharin’s somewhat precious linguistic discussion may in fact be evidence that the fight over a broader Central Asian unity is beginning to develop, a fight that could transform that region’s political arrangements far more radically than changes in any one of the countries there, at least with regard to outside actors.

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